The Lion’s Share

Do you know where your chocolate comes from? No, not the grocery store, or even the country of origin for the beans. More to the point, do you know who your chocolate comes from?

Most of the world’s chocolate is industrial, highly processed to maintain consistency and low prices, but at the expense of nuanced flavor, to say nothing of the human cost. Only a handful of chocolate makers are producing candy for the mass market, but smaller startups are turning the cacao world on its head by starting from the ground up.

Dandelion Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker rooted in the Mission District of San Francisco. One of the very few operations in the US that go through the full process of roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, grinding, conching, and tempering cacao beans in small batches, it’s a full three to four days before any bars are even formed or packaged- all by hand, I might add.

Here, the unique properties extracted through fermenting and roasting high quality beans are celebrated rather than muted. Even the sweetest blends minimize the use of sugar, adding just enough to accentuate the inherent flavors of the cacao, and dairy is never a consideration. Notably, neither is additional cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, or any of the other usual chocolate suspects. Without these typical crutches, everything you taste comes solely from the bean at hand. Finally, it’s chocolate that can speak for itself, and the message is loud and clear: There’s nothing comparable on the market, and almost certainly nothing better.

The real treat is getting to see how it’s all made firsthand, through factory tours and generous tastings if you’re lucky enough to be in town. While the cafe is still light on vegan eats, the drinks are really where it’s at. Incredibly rich, dense, decadent hot chocolate put them on the map years ago, but for a lighter, one-of-a-kind refresher on a hot summer’s day, you really must try the cacao smoothie. If you’ve never had fresh cacao before, brace yourself; this tastes nothing like chocolate. Believe it or not, the tropical fruit is more evocative of pineapple, but mild and with no acidity, blending in notes of sweet Meyer lemon. When given the such a rare opportunity, I would implore you to taste the range of flavors the whole fruit is capable of.

Chocolate is so much more than cheap Halloween handouts. Dandelion Chocolate is working to change that misconception, one handmade bar at a time.

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Bar None

May I introduce you to your new sweet obsession?

Every baker dreams of instantly whipping up sure-fire hits every time they turn on the oven, and eaters, no matter how adventurous, always crave certain comforting staples. While the internet hardly needs another plain old blondie recipe, it DOES need this one. It’s the one I always turn to for potlucks, for presents, and for random sweet tooth satisfaction, year in and year out. Something with enough staying power to see that many repeat performances in my kitchen deserves greater attention.

Super chewy, surprisingly buttery, and singing with sweet vanilla essence, they’re simply the best rendition of the classic bar cookie that everyone should have in their repertoire. There’s nothing crazy going on here; no complicated preparation, drawn out chilling or baking times, crazy ingredients, or any other shenanigans. Just tender slabs of caramelized brown sugar sweetness, filled with rich chocolate morsels, ready to be devoured in under an hour.

The only element that may give you pause is the cassava flour, but it’s not so scary as it may sound. It’s made from the yucca root, like tapioca starch, but comes from the entire tuber, thus affording it more fiber and nutrition than the later. If you can’t find it, don’t want to hunt it down, or don’t care about making your treats gluten-free, make it even easier by swapping in good old fashioned all-purpose flour.

In closing, I must apologize for making this introduction. If you had any attachments to particular blondie recipes previously, I’m afraid this fresh suitor will prove irresistible, leading to quite the sordid affair. I’m not sorry, however, for the joy it will create once you surrender to such an inevitability.

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Eat to Beat Anxiety

The connection between diet and mood is more than just food for thought. “A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” according to Felice Jacka, and she should know. She’s the president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.” As someone who suffers from both, I’m acutely aware of the difference in how I feel when choosing healthier whole foods, but what exactly is it that causes this shift? It’s tough to pick apart such a tangled ball of yarn, where so many elements are inextricably tangled together. When it comes to anxiety though, I’ve seen amazing and rapid improvement by focusing on a few select superfoods to keep all-out panic at bay.

Almonds are often praised for their high levels of healthy fats, touted for heart health. Moreover, these nutty superfoods bring iron and zinc to the table in ample measures, both of which are key nutrients for balancing one’s mood and overall energy level.

Hemp seeds are another good source of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help with anxiety. Naturally, it stands to reason that CBD oils derived from hemp has the very same nutritional properties, along with chemicals called cannabinoids that bind to specialized receptors in the brain. These affect everything from appetite and pain perception to mood and memory.

Chocolate, dark and intense, without added sweetener or milks, is more than just a feel-good flavor. Yes, it does help boost moods based on great taste alone, but it also has been shown to reduce cortisol, which is a stress hormone that can wreak havoc if left unchecked. Additionally, the flavonoids in the cocoa are protective for all the cells in your body. These antioxidants have shown promising results in lowering blood pressure, boosting the blood flow to the brain and heart, which all adds up to less anxiety. Just be careful not to overdo it, since the natural caffeine compounds could add up and have quite the opposite effect.

Maca root is bit less common, but particularly potent. Adaptogens are all the rage these days, promising protective properties against stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical or biological. Maca in particular is a remarkably concentrated source of phytonutrients such as magnesium and iron, which are both critical for controlling anxiety.

Whole grains, packed with satisfying, satiating fiber, are the complex carbohydrates that help maintain a steady energy boost. If you’re hungry, you’re less rational, less patient, and quicker to irritation. Oats especially are said to help increase the production of serotonin, most famously known for addressing symptoms of depression.

Coconut, and all the individual ingredients it creates, from coconut milk, oil, flour, and butter, are made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are smaller fat molecules that are easily broken down and used as a backup source of energy. The brain is made of approximately 60% fat, so it needs these essential fatty acids to function properly. The brain can’t store energy and can continue to function properly for a very short amount of time without it. You need to consistently feed your brain these good fats to keep it happy and healthy.

Taken individually, these separate ingredients can do a world of good, but when they join forces in a fully balanced diet, they make the most impact. Beyond the powerful nutritional punch you get from the array of vitamins and minerals you get from so many unique sources, they happen to add up to a really delicious combination, too. Joining all of these anti-anxiety superfoods in sweet blended harmony, the resulting creamy shake will blow any powdered meal replacement out of the water. Malt shoppes only wish they had the true earthy goodness that maca brings to the table, playing off the subtle woodsy notes of true cocoa. Thick and rich with whole oats and fresh coconut, rather than sugary scoops of ice cream, you can drink it down to power up, rather than crash out from a sugar coma later.

There are no overnight cures, no quick fixes for holistic lifestyle changes, which can also be said of many medications, too. You really are what you eat, though; eat well to feel well!

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Mousse Tracks

Like so many great culinary achievements, we have the French to thank for inventing the edible frothy custard known as mousse. Originally a savory dish akin to aerated pâté, it didn’t catch on as a dessert, typically built upon fruity flavors, until the later half of the 19th century. Undergoing a dramatic rebranding since then, the concept is now nearly synonymous with chocolate, which is precisely what we’re celebrating today.

National Chocolate Mousse Day is a real date on the official calendar, and this designation is genuinely warranted. As easy to whip up as your average pudding but far more decadent, eggs need not apply for any of the natural loft in my last course. Swapping in tofu makes the process effortless, and the end results impressively high in protein.

Fool-proof, crowd-pleasing, and devilishly decadent, one of my favorite versions comes from Laura Theodore. Her Marvelous Chocolate-Peanut Butter Mousse has been a frequent dinner party guest. Always welcome at the table and excellent company to share, it even seems to clean up after itself; every glass is licked clean by the end of the night.

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The Devil Eats Chocolate

“That’s very fattening.”

Dropping like a stone out of the clear blue sky, the unsolicited comment stopped me cold. I hadn’t even been aware of the man standing in front of my cart, blocking my slow procession down the aisle. An instinctual flicker of rage flashed before my eyes, as if I had been slapped and called out back for a fight. This? This innocent little chocolate bar I held in my hand, fattening? What had it ever done to deserve such a harsh insult, completely unprovoked?

I looked up quickly, startled by the intrusion. There was only one way to respond, as far as I could see.

Looking this odd stranger straight in the eye, I spoke clearly and calmly.

“Yep.”

Immediately, the decision was made under that advice. Into the cart went the candy, tossed nonchalantly. That was all such a careless exclamation warranted.

Pulling the cart away from the shelf, away from this intruder, an incredulous grin began to spread across my face. What a laughable claim! What a strange thing to interject! Perhaps I should be grateful he’s so deeply concerned with my nutritional well-being. As if “fattening” was a terrible condition that could be contracted and spread like a disease, it was so kind of him to take a stand against the evils of all confectionery the world over, starting with my misinformed purchase.

Taking my plunder outside the store, there was only one way to dispose of such dangerous contraband. Quickly removing the wrapper to dissect the scored rectangles, it broke like the flimsy villain facade it hid behind, shattering into dark brown splinters that glittered inside the foil sheath. Vanquishing the beast, piece after piece succumbed to a sharp bite of the teeth, and a slow melt over the tongue.

May this beast inflict its fattening ways over society no more.

Think Outside the Chocolate Box

Romance comes in many flavors, but chocolate is the dominant taste on lovers’ lips come February 14th. Truffles, molded and dipped, lavished with nuts, caramel, spices, and salt, line up in neat lines across interminable rows of red boxes, nestled into fluted paper cups serving more as garnishes than practical storage solutions. Chocolate, the ubiquitous sweet aphrodisiac, is easily the top treat for this loving affair, beating both flowers and jewelry offerings by a mile. Predictable yet indisputably in demand, it’s hard to argue with another chocolate-covered Valentine’s Day.

That doesn’t mean you need to stick with conventional confections to win over a fickle mistress. Consider a deeper dive into the cacao pool with a Homemade Tunnel of Fudge Bundt Cake. Originally devised as an amalgamation of questionable packaged baking mixes, a true tunnel of fudge cake is easier to assemble than your average Bundt. With a river of gooey, rich chocolate running through the core, it’s essentially a supersized lava cake if eaten warm. Dense, rich, and intense, at the core resides the famed heart of fudge, thick as cookie dough without the harsh sugar rush synonymous with unbaked batter. Nuts traditionally make up the bulk of this blend, but to make it allergen-free, they’re replaced with decadent chocolate morsels instead, much to the delight of devoted chocoholics and picky eaters, as well.

Just in time for this sweet heart’s holiday, you can find my recipe over on Go Dairy Free.